The Vietnam War

Reference: JSource Original

By Department of Defense. Department of the Navy. U.S. Marine Corps. (National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Operation Georgia–Marines blow up bunkers and tunnels used by the Viet Cong.

American interventions in foreign conflicts have not always been successful endeavors. The most notable of their failed attempts at suppressing Communism was the Vietnam War, in which the United States supported South Vietnam against Ho Chi Minh’s Socialist party in the North (Vietcong). United States involvement in the bloody war began on a small scale under President Eisenhower in 1955, and escalated dramatically until the Fall of Saigon in 1975, which ended the war after almost 60,000 casualties. Public reaction to the war was overwhelmingly negative, and spawned a massive anti-war movement towards the end of the 1960s. Many saw Vietnam as an un-winnable war, fearing for the lives of the 2 million American soldiers serving on the ground in Southeast Asia.


[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

President Johnson decorates Vietnam veterans, 1968

As the post-assassination successor to the immensely popular John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson always feared that the nation would never embrace him as President. After completing Kennedy’s term and winning the 1964 election in his own right, Johnson became deeply concerned about what history would have to say about his legacy in office. Though he was passionate about national issues like his Great Society, Civil Rights and the War on Poverty, Johnson stated that he would not be remembered as the President who allowed Southeast Asia to fall to Communism. Despite growing opposition, Johnson made the executive decision in 1965 to escalate the war, sending in thousands of ground troops to defend South Vietnam.

Opposition to the War

By uwdigitalcollections (Student protesters marching down Langdon Street) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Student protesters marching against Vietnam

Arguably the most controversial part of the War was the instatement of a draft, requiring hundreds of thousands of non-volunteers to report for duty. This sparked an unprecedented amount of protest from the youth of America. The 1960s was a decade during which a counterculture emerged, heavily influenced by ideals of peace, love and non-conformity. The counterculture was made up of mostly young people, so it was ironic that these were the first to be called upon for the draft. Because war was inherently against their beliefs, a movement against the Vietnam War (and war in general) grew rapidly.

The Tet Offensive

When Johnson first began to escalate the war, the majority of Americans saw Vietnam as a worthy cause for American intervention. There were always rabble-rousers in the counter-culture, but it wasn’t until the last year of the Johnson administration that public opinion began to shift drastically. The holiday of Tet celebrates the New Year in Buddhist culture, the then-dominant religion of South Vietnam, but in January 1968, the holiday was marred by a horrific attack by the Vietcong in North Vietnam. Taking advantage of a Buddhist day of peace, the Vietcong delivered massive blows to the unprepared South Vietnamese and US militias. To those watching at home, it suddenly became clear that the opposition was not as weak as the American government had insisted. In the following months, US forces launched a series of massive counter-attacks to reclaim their lost territory and destroy the pro-Vietcong organization responsible for many of the attacks: the South Vietnamese National Liberation Forces (NLF). Although the Tet Offensive was considered a win for the US, historians have come to understand the incident as the breaking point in domestic approval of the war. Millions of Americans who initially supported the war joined the impassioned opposition, recognizing that the war’s end was nowhere in sight. President Johnson, shamed by his failure to contain South Vietnam, did not run for re-election in 1968, leaving the war to his successor, Richard Nixon.

My Lai Massacre

In March 1969, a few months into Nixon’s presidency, My Lai Massacre, by Ron Ridenhour" href="">a letter began to circulate in Washington, D.C. from a man named Ron Ridenhour. While serving in the 11th Infantry Brigade during his tour in Vietnam, Ridenhour heard tell of an incident surrounding the small town of “Pinkville.” After further investigation, he decided to notify the authorities of the atrocities committed against the town by American soldiers.

On March 19, 1968, the members of Charlie Company, 11th Infantry Brigade, entered the town of My Lai, South Vietnam. Thought to house NLF soldiers, My Lai was a point of difficulty for Charlie Company, who had encountered numerous mines and booby-traps throughout their time in the region. On a mission designated “search and destroy,” the American soldiers proceeded to slaughter every person in the town, including women and children. For a year, the massacre was covered up by military officials, only spoken about in whispered rumors between soldiers, until Ridenhour’s letter exposed My Lai to the American public. Already incensed by the losses sustained during the Tet Offensive, the public was horrified to learn of war crimes committed by their own soldiers, adding to the growing disapproval of American intervention in Vietnam.

A Never Ending War

By Oliver F. Atkins (1916-1977) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Nixon on the campaign trail in 1968

Under Nixon, American forces also invaded Cambodia in 1970, conducting secret bombings for months before the public found out. People across the nation staged protests, the most famous of which ended in the deaths of 4 Kent State University students at the hands of Ohio National Guardsmen. Despite such militant opposition to the war, American soldiers remained in Southeast Asia until 1973, after almost a decade of unsuccessful attempts to contain Communism. After long negotiations called the Paris Accords, the United States signed a treaty in January 1973, honoring a cease-fire and a withdrawal of troops. However, the Accords did little to end the fighting between North and South Vietnam, who continued to fight until 1975, when Saigon fell to the NLF and the reunification of Vietnam as a Communist province began.

The Vietnam War remains a horrific blemish on American history, especially in regards to foreign policy. Trust was lost in a nation that espoused tenets of democracy and freedom for all, and the world began to question whether American involvement in international issues was intervention or imperialism.

For Further Reading:


VIDEO SERIES: “Vietnam in HD”

Tet Offensive

My Lai Massacre

Cambodia/ Nixon

Opposition to the War

GI Resistance and Veterans Against the War

Mayday, 1971

Protest Music:

Support of the War/ Anti-Anti-War

Hard Hat Riot, NYC (1970)